Growing up in a Belgian single-parent household I was very close with my father and my sister. When I decided to move 16,000 kilometres across the world to Australia, away from Belgium and away from my family, it was incredibly difficult to navigate the feelings of guilt and grief. However, as a queer person, I also experienced a profound sense of relief.
I knew I was queer from a very young age. I never gave it much thought until I heard others talking about queer people in primary school and out on the street. While 1990s Belgium was relatively progressive, people still held more traditional views in rural areas. To my father, being queer was something foreign that put a target on your back; if you were different, people would be much quicker to scrutinise, ridicule, and humiliate you. Why would anyone want that?
To my father, being queer was something foreign that put a target on your back; if you were different, people would be much quicker to scrutinise, ridicule, and humiliate you.
One of the things I noticed growing up was that my father was much older than any of my friends’ parents. Born in the late forties, the generational gap between him and me and my sister was twice the size of that of my friends and their parents. While my father’s values were relatively unnoticeable in our early childhood, we sensed our differences more and more as me and my sister grew up and formed our own opinions. It became clear to me that my father saw the world through a different lens; I had my nose stuck in a book morning until night and was never interested in doing well in school. To my father, academic excellence, keeping up appearances, and keeping your head down and working were of the utmost importance. Extracurricular activities, friendships, and relationships were never discussed in-depth. Instead, they were to be stuffed into the margins of life. It goes without saying that any notion of queerness was fully and completely off the table.
Coming from a post-war era, being educated after high school was not a given for my father. If you did manage to get a degree, it would give you a flexibility like nothing else. My grandparents pressured my father immensely to study something ‘useful’, and to later take over their business. By training as a textile engineer, my father fulfilled his parents’ wishes, then defied them by starting his own flag printing business instead of taking over their knitting factory. He was one of the first people to print flags and T-shirts in our region. My father often talked about the pride he felt when he chose to follow his own instincts instead of his parents’, and yet he still chose to pressure me and my sister the same way his parents had pressured him.
Coupled with my father’s strong work ethic, I could see how his upbringing and the trauma of my mother’s death created a deeply rooted anxiety in him on our behalf.
After my mother passed away, it was flags that paid our medical debts, gave us clothes to wear and food to eat, and kept poverty at bay. Coupled with my father’s strong work ethic, I could see how his upbringing and the trauma of my mother’s death created a deeply rooted anxiety in him on our behalf. He was adamant me and my sister land on our feet with a good degree in our pocket. While friendships and romantic relationships came and went, in his eyes financial stability was forever.
For me, my father’s views quickly translated to immense and unceasing pressure to do well at school, lose weight, and have a flawless career. The pressure was overwhelming, and I spent my high school years paralysed by internalised perfectionism. It was this perfectionism that nailed the doors of my closet firmly shut for the next few years. Being queer wasn’t keeping your head down; instead, it was sticking your neck out above everyone else’s, waiting to get hit.
I stayed closeted right up until I met my Australian partner, and I didn’t come out to my father fully until after I’d moved overseas. At the time, I felt like a coward who was running away from my problems, but now I see that Australia gave me the change of scenery I needed. When I left my friends and family behind, I felt like a whole part of my identity unravelled so abruptly that I’ve spent the last five years trying to gather it back up, building up a support network in my new home. While the unravelling was hard, a lot of my anxieties around being queer unravelled along with it. For the first time, I could walk down the street hand in hand with my partner without worrying who I’d run into. I got a job where I was able to speak freely about our relationship, our home, and our shared goals. I went out to queer clubs and festivals, feeling like I could finally be myself around other people. I could try on my queer identity without any risk, one step at a time. It was terrifying but also exhilarating.
I stayed closeted right up until I met my Australian partner, and I didn’t come out to my father fully until after I’d moved overseas.
Moving to Australia took me apart in some ways, but it also put me back together again; for years, I thought I was a bad person for not fitting the heteronormative mould. Living in Melbourne, however, I realised that my queerness was a core part of my identity. Finally expressing it felt like breathing out for the first time in years.
When my father visited me in Melbourne a few months ago we had some frank conversations. After having lived overseas for more than five years, I felt like I could finally hear his voice from across the generation gap, not as a conservative boomer discouraging me being queer, but as a parent with his own worries and anxieties about keeping me safe. To see the generation gap being stitched up in front of us in this way was a strange but immensely healing experience that brought us closer together. We might never have gotten the opportunity had it not been for me moving to Melbourne.
Lise Leitner is a freelance writer.